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The MK privilege

What’s life like as a missionary kid? It’s hard. It’s painful. And for many, it’s a blessing that can’t be beat.

The MK privilege

The Funk family in 1994. (Courtesy of the Funk family)

Courtesy of Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee (far right) as a child with her family.

Courtesy of the Funk family

Josh Funk (center) leads a song for a kids’ program.

Christy Rossodivita

Dessie Stewart

Most missionaries can remember a moment when they questioned the sacrifices of their calling. For Grant Funk, it was the day he found his oldest daughter Sarah sprawled on the snow, a splash of blond hair and bright parka in the middle of a classic Alaskan blizzard—a storm so heavy that the 15-year-old had to slide out the back window of the house to go feed her dog sled team. That was when her back suddenly tweaked.

Sarah was born with hemihyperplasia, a rare congenital condition that made her entire left side abnormally bigger than her right, causing multiple orthopedic and nerve problems. That day when her back gave out, every nerve in her body flared, and the girl collapsed as though paralyzed.

Funk rushed to his daughter, but touching her only made the pain worse. As Sarah inched her way back to the house on her elbows, her helpless father also dropped to his belly and crawled beside her. Father and daughter writhed their way through the deep snow, leaving a trail of tears—hers from physical pain, his from a parent’s ripping heart. At that moment, Funk couldn’t help thinking, “If I wasn’t a missionary, Sarah wouldn’t be in this situation right now.”

MISSIONARIES EXPECT BIG SACRIFICES: They sacrificed career ambitions, security, and stability when they heeded God’s call to “Go.” They left the warmth and familiarity of family, friends, culture, and home. Out in the field, they daily sacrifice comfort, time, and safety to obey God’s call to “Stay.”

Many missionaries tell me the toughest sacrifice to make is their family. The same hardy missionary who charges through Burmese jungles carrying a 35-pound sack of medical supplies said his greatest “faith-stretching” moment was when each of his three kids fell deathly sick from tropical diseases. One missionary in South Africa told me self-doubt struck him when he heard his usually composed wife weeping uncontrollably in the bathroom. Another missionary in inland Alaska said her children are “the chink in the armor that Satan often uses to attack us, because that’s where we’re weakest.”

The Funks served for 15 years in Hooper Bay, a coastal, rural village of about 1,000 Yupik Eskimos in western Alaska. Since they didn’t have running water, the family collected stories of “honey bucket” mishaps to unleash at furlough dinners. Other stories are less entertaining: Hooper Bay is so isolated that the Funks had to fly four hours out to Anchorage for proper healthcare. Finding a local physical therapist and orthopedist for Sarah’s condition was impossible. During one three-day snowstorm, the Funks almost lost their youngest daughter Lydia to a ruptured appendix. Another brutal winter, Sarah and her father were stranded for 22 hours in the middle of a frozen, desolate landscape after their private plane crashed.

As the rare white family in a predominantly Native village, the Funks never forgot they were outsiders. The bigger-boned, fair-skinned Sarah constantly felt fat and ugly, and some village girls actually told her so. Her only friends were her siblings, the younger kids she taught in church, and her sled dogs.

Many nights, Funk bolted awake to a strange creak in the house, knowing too well the dangers of Hooper Bay. He assured me he wasn’t one of those helicopter parents—he simply “hid around the corner and watched” his kids. Oftentimes, Funk could do little except pray for them, as he did when his children mourned the loss of friends who killed themselves or were killed. All five children cried many tears, but Funk and his wife shed even more.

Today, he still groans when he recalls what his children endured as missionary kids (MKs). But he says those long, hard years brought the greatest blessings to his family: “My kids came out scarred, and they will be scarred for life, but they came out with a passion for Christ that is so deep, you can’t get that way without the scar tissues.”

Other missionaries agree: One missionary in Bangkok—an MK from Zimbabwe who married an MK from Korea—said blessings flow when parents invite the whole family to God’s calling. She always tells her three MKs: “It’s not just mine. God put you here, so at this time, it’s also your mission field.”

That’s why the Funks call their kids “KMs”: Kid Missionaries. “If your kids are MKs, you’re working to protect them from all the MK pains and scars,” Funk said. “But if your kids are KMs, you are taking them to the front lines with you and showing them how to fight the battle. It’s a radical approach to ministry.”

I TOO WAS AN MK/KM. My parents dedicated their lives to discipling the Chinese peoples—with significant sacrifices. When my father quit his professor job at a university in South Korea to teach the Bible in Southeast Asia, my grandfather cut us off. The day we flew to Singapore with two suitcases, only our church family came to send us off at the airport.

In a foreign country of unfamiliar languages, food, and climate, my young mother almost single-handedly raised my younger brother and me, while my father jetted around Southeast Asia for three-quarters of the year. When he came back, he could never give us enough hugs and kisses, or buy us enough Chicken McNuggets. Our parents always told us that instead of losing Abba, we were “sending him” to save souls. “You are our biggest mission bridge,” they said, and it happened organically: Whenever my brother and I played in the streets, yelling in a jumble of Korean and Mandarin, strangers patted our heads and asked where we were from. Evangelism and Bible studies opened up simply because we tumbled with other kids at the playground.

However, I wasn’t always so noble-hearted: Whenever my father traveled overseas, I awoke with tear-swollen eyes from nightmares in which religious extremists hacked my father to death. I also resented “those Chinese people” for stealing my father’s time, love, and energy. By age 10 I refused to speak Mandarin and became a loud and proud Korean—until our biennial trips to South Korea clarified that I didn’t belong there, either.

When people ask me where I’m from, I always hesitate: Do they mean my ethnicity? Citizenship? Hometown? Current address? My own parents don’t understand why I so struggle to define my identity. It especially bothers them that I didn’t grow up knowing our extended family. We missed New Year’s gatherings, our grandparents’ 70th birthdays (a significant celebration in Korea) and their funerals, and our cousins’ weddings. It bugs my parents that I don’t share their memories and affection for our mother country, that I don’t cheer for South Korea in the World Cup or desire a Korean husband.

In my parents’ eyes, I’m denying an integral part of myself. In my heart, I feel like a restless nomad who can settle everywhere without belonging anywhere—and to me, that’s a wonderful asset: As one 15-year-old MK in Burma described, not having an earthly home makes me look forward to the heavenly home to which I’ll belong fully and forever.

MANY FELLOW MKS I’ve met feel the same way. At an international school in Bangkok, I sat with a group of teenage MKs and asked, “So, where are you from?” Everyone hesitated, then laughed. One MK said, “I have no idea where I’m from.” We nodded knowingly.

Then 18-year-old Andrew Person shared a common MK story: As a kid in Chiang Mai, Person was the sole non-Thai in school. When his mother asked why he refused to speak English, the boy explained, “Because then everyone will know I’m not Thai!” His mother sighed, steered him toward the mirror, and pointed out his flaxen hair, pale skin, and light eyes: “Oh, honey. They already know you’re not Thai.”

Person eventually came to own his otherness, particularly when his teacher kept trying to force him to bow to a Buddha statue and he kept refusing: “You’re worshipping a piece of wood!” His mother Suzie Person said because her three children grew up with the incense odors, animistic rituals, and golden stupas of Thailand, they recognize the reality of spiritual warfare. And because they’re used to observing their environment from the outside looking in, they naturally blend into different cultures without losing a critical perspective—a skill missionaries spend years trying to learn.

That same blessing can create pitfalls for many MKs: All that we’ve seen, experienced, and learned easily feeds our pride and prejudice. We close our minds to those we consider closed-minded. We bristle at racially insensitive remarks, at ignorance or indifference to global affairs, and at Christians we deem fake, comfort-seeking, or materialistic. A paradox of pride and insecurity causes us to wear our MK battle scars like badges of distinction, and when we fail to fit in to the place our parents call home, we may choose to reject it outright.

I asked some MKs in Thailand what they thought of fellow Americans, and one boy half-joked, “They’re fat and stupid.” I asked a similar question at an international school in Malaysia, and one teenager from Canada said, “You almost feel pity for them, because they know so little about the world.” Another MK in Alaska said: “We didn’t like the white kids much. They seemed ... stuck-up and sheltered to us. They’d be grossed out that we ate seal oil. They asked dumb questions. It didn’t seem like they understood or wanted to understand other cultures.” Andrew Person said he feels more at ease with his Buddhist Thai neighbors than with his Texan cousins: “We have no way to relate, no way to converse. The only thing we share is blood.”

Person has lived in a bamboo hut in a tribal mountain village, attended a school reserved for the royal Thai family, and was the only Christian in class for most of his life. But the prospect of attending an American college made him nervous. During a campus tour at Baylor University, he remembers sitting in awkward silence while other students bopped along to pop music on the radio. While his peers rocked designer jeans, he wore bargains from Goodwill. When they geeked out over the latest Hunger Games movie, he pretended to be interested.

Despite his apprehension, Person said being an MK is a blessing: “I want to embrace what I’ve been shown my entire life.”

WHILE SARAH FUNK was dating Luke Stewart, a lanky Californian, they got into a heated debate. After telling Luke about her difficult childhood, Sarah said she still wanted to raise her kids as MKs. He was flabbergasted: “That’s cruel! How can you want your kids to grow up like that?” Sarah was indignant: “But I want my kids to feel uncomfortable! It’s the best life, the best way to see the world!”

Stewart must have lost that argument, because he and Sarah are now married, with five MKs of their own. Stewart pastors a Baptist church in Kobuk, a tiny Inuit village located 40 miles above the Arctic Circle. Using the Stewart children as an excuse, village kids visit their house regularly to talk to Sarah Stewart about the violence, abuse, and fears that torment them. Like her parents, Stewart doesn’t worry much about her family’s meager finances, even when the only food left in the fridge is ketchup and mayonnaise—she’s experienced too much of God’s faithful providence as an MK to fret over tomorrow’s bread. But she cannot shake off one worry: “What I hate now as a parent is seeing and knowing what’s coming for my kids.”

It’s already happening: The Kobuk queen bee has decided to pick on Stewart’s oldest daughter Dessie, a dreamy, horse-crazy 8-year-old. When Stewart sees the neighborhood kids goading her daughter with sticks, she seethes and grieves and fears there’s more to come. What’s going to happen when Dessie is a teenager, attracting gazes from boys and stirring more resentment among the other girls? When her thoughts travel in that direction, Stewart panics: “Oh no! I don’t want that for my kids.” But then she remembers how God is already blessing and using her kids, and concludes, “I want my kids to feel that it’s a privilege to be an MK.”

One Sunday in Kobuk, I found Dessie crouching silently by the stoop of the church while the other kids laughed and played outside. “What’s wrong?” I asked, squatting next to her. Trying not to cry, Dessie raised her golden-blond head and pointed to a gregarious girl in pink: “That’s her.” Oh. Her bully. Apparently, the queen bee had deployed her sting again.

Seeing Dessie sad made my blood boil, so I half-jokingly said, “Want me to go kick her butt?” I had expected Dessie to laugh, but instead she immediately shook her head: “No, I gotta be nice and love her. She needs to know Jesus.” I bit back a smile: Ah, another Kid Missionary.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.